Parry poised to take over limelight

Rivalry inspires British record holderas Olympic swimming trials start in Sheffield tomorrow

At britain's Olympic swimming trials in Sheffield this week, two men will race head to head over four lengths butterfly and both will comfortably be selected for the Olympic Games. But for James Hickman and Steve Parry, who both have every chance of bringing back a medal from Sydney, there is a complex psychological subtext to their intense rivalry.

At britain's Olympic swimming trials in Sheffield this week, two men will race head to head over four lengths butterfly and both will comfortably be selected for the Olympic Games. But for James Hickman and Steve Parry, who both have every chance of bringing back a medal from Sydney, there is a complex psychological subtext to their intense rivalry.

Hickman has owned the 200 metres butterfly since 1996. He has taken the British record from 2min to 1min 57sec, swum in an Olympic and World Championship final and is the media's golden boy who wants to win a medal in Sydney.

Throughout this time Parry has followed frustratingly in his wake. However, in March this year in Seattle, Parry dramatically stepped out of the shadows by setting the British and Commonwealth record to 1:56.34, and in doing so beat the Olympic favourite and world record holder, Tom Malchow, at the American's own national championships.

The sub-plot between the two swimmers thickens, however, toinclude the relationship of Dave Calleja, the Stockport Metro coach. Calleja coached Hickman from age group final to Olympic final; after Hickman crossed the Pennines to train in Leeds, Calleja is now coaching Parry.

Parry said: "After I graduated from Florida State University two years ago, I needed to focus on swimming. Dave had coached James to be a world-class 200 fly swimmer, so I respected his ability as a coach. I decided to come back to Britain to follow the Olympic dream but when I got here I was shocked to find that I couldn't keep up with the training. I didn't have a lot of background from my four years in college and I certainly didn't have the background that Hickman had got under Dave."

Calleja is one of Britain's most successful coaches and had a clearinsight into the work Parry needed. He focused on the long medley sets that Parry coped with well, and built in the butterfly work gradually.

The élite group of half a dozen swimmers coached by Calleja train a brutal seven hours a day with a mixture of pool sessions and a broad variety of strength and flexibility work. Parry's background in Florida had been quite different from his new life in Stockport. For this affable Liverpudlian, who thrives on his sense of humour and playful energy, the sunshine state was manna from heaven and he threw himself into American student life.

"It's not that I didn't work hard there, it's just that I had different goals then," Parry said. "I was an 18 -year-old off the leash in a new environment. Everything you see on TV about college life in America is true. It's kegs and legs and boozed up fraternity houses going nuts and you can be as good or as bad as you like. After my first year there, I swam the trials in 1996 but I deserved not to make the Olympic team because I didn't apply myself."

While Parry spent the summer of 1996 ruing the party life, Hickman was swimming in the Olympic final, "But I was inspired, so in my sophomore year, my second year, I got my head down and trained hard," Parry said.

That March he became the first swimmer from Florida State to win the prestigious NCAA title, and the first Briton to do so. "And if you win the NCAAs you are a hero on campus. The local media make you out as the dog's nuts." His thick Scouse accent is as engaging as it is lyrical. "The girls all thought I spoke the Queen's English and so I let them think that."

Success followed in 1998 with bronze in the European Championships, sixth place in the World Championships and an invitation to swim on the World All Star team at the Goodwill Games. But despite it all, Hickman had finished fifth at the World Championships and was still courting all the media attention.

Worse was to come. At the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur later that summer Parry collected bronze, but Hickman struck the gold and was British swimming's golden boy. "I was absolutely gutted," Parry said. "It is such a high profile meet for British swimmers and I expected to do a lot better than that. It was then that I made the move to come home and train in Stockport."

Calleja is known as a coach whodemands courage and honesty from his athletes, particularly when the training stress training is at its highest. And the ability to suffer through hours of physical and emotional toil is Parry's greatest strength.

He is an imposing 6ft 4in and 14 stone. He talks of the abdominal muscles and hips as his core strength work, but he really means strength of the heart. And lungs. Parry has a giant set of lungs inside a body of super conditioned muscle and can hold his breath for a staggering three and a half minutes. At the end of a gruelling session, he will leave his training partners in awe as he heads up the next sprint set and does it all underwater.

Through it all, he is the one who retains the sense of humour todiffuse the stresses of an élite group putting themselves on the line every day. Nothing seems to bother him as he ploughs onward.

And in March this year, the long hours in the pool finally paid off as Parry stepped blinking into the sunlight and took over from Hickman as Britain's No 1. He joins Paul Palmer and Graeme Smith, one of Parry's training partners, as Britain's best chances for Olympic medals.

But despite swimming in Hickman's shadow for so long, Parry is quick to acknowledge the paradox of the Hickman factor.

"James has done a lot for me indirectly," he said. "I targeted the British record four years ago, which was 2min 00sec at the time. If James hadn't been there, I would have gone 1:59, won national titles and thought I was doing well. But because of him, I had to reset my sights to 1:58, then 1:57, so the rivalry has made me better. Now he has got to go 1:56 to get the record back.

"He takes the pressure off me by saying he wants to win a medal but on the other hand, I get annoyed that it is not me in the limelight. I want an Olympic medal. I don't know if that is possible or feasible. All I know is that I am fourth in the world so far."

This is code for a determination to keep the inner desires secret.Externally, he is just stating the facts. But the fires inside are burning with the confidence.

As the two prepare this week to post the 1:56 that will confirm them as medal prospects, Parry has a psychological edge over his rival. Hickman will know exactly what Parry is doing in training and will know that it is the kind of training that took Hickman to an Olympic final. If things do not go well in Sheffield, it will start playing on Hickman's mind. And at the very top, that can be fatal.

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